Expectations likely weren’t too high for most onlookers when Yoshi Tsutsugo signed with the Pirates last month. Pittsburgh was the third organization of the season for the 29-year-old Tsutsugo — a star with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball who’d struggled since signing a two-year contract with the the Rays. That contract guaranteed Tsutsugo a total of $12MM, but he never found his footing with Tampa Bay.
In 272 plate appearances as a member of the Rays, Tsutsugo batted just .187/.292/.336 with a 28.3 percent strikeout rate. He showed a bit of pop during the shortened 2020 season, at least, slugging eight homers and reaching base enough to register an even 100 wRC+ through 185 plate appearances (in spite of a poor .197 batting average). Things went much worse in 2021, as Tsutsugo went homerless with an increased strikeout rate and decreased walk rate through 85 trips to the plate. The Rays designated him for assignment on May 11.
A trade to the Dodgers didn’t bring about better fortunes. Tsutsugo appeared in only 12 games and went 3-for-25 without an extra-base hit and a dozen strikeouts. Los Angeles outrighted him off the 40-man roster in early July and released him by mid-August.
Enter the Pirates.
Pittsburgh is paying Tsutsugo the prorated league-minimum after signing him on Aug. 15, and since donning the black and gold, he’s quietly looked like the middle-of-the-order bat the Rays hoped to be signing in the first place. It’s a small sample, but Tsutsugo has flat-out mashed for the Bucs. In 117 plate appearances prior to today’s game, he’s turned in a .291/.368/.612 slash with as many home runs (eight) as he tallied in 303 plate appearances between Tampa Bay and Los Angeles.
It’s not just the long ball that’s driving the turnaround, either. Tsutsugo fanned at a 29.4 percent clip between the Rays and Dodgers, but that’s plummeted to 19.7 percent in Pittsburgh. He’s added seven doubles and a triple with the Pirates, too, bringing his extra-base hit total to 16 (just two fewer than his combined mark in his prior two organizations).
Like many other hitters in recent years, Tsutsugo has found some success by beginning to elevate the ball more regularly. His 42.4 percent ground-ball rate during his time between L.A. and Tampa Bay has dropped to just 33.3 percent with his new club. His infield-fly rate has dropped, his line-drive rate has risen a bit, and he’s improved his barrel percentage — even if his overall hard-hit rate has declined.
Defensively, the Pirates have played Tsutsugo in right field and at first base. The results in the outfield haven’t been great, which isn’t a huge surprise. He was billed as primarily a first baseman or left fielder upon coming over from Japan, but the Rays deployed him at both infield corners and in both outfield corners. Colin Moran’s presence and the lack of a designated hitter in the National League has pushed Tsutsugo to the outfield too frequently, but it’s of course possible there will be a designated hitter in the NL next season, which would open some more avenues for Tsutsugo.
This all amounts to little more than a trial run with the Pirates, as Tsutsugo’s initial contract called for him to become a free agent after the 2021 season. That’s still the case, as noted by Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month. One would imagine that a rebuilding team like the Pirates wouldn’t have taken a post-trade deadline look at Tsutsugo in the first place without some interest in retaining him beyond the current season, though. Even if he was viewed as a mere placeholder at the time, his play in Pittsburgh ought to have piqued the front office’s interest moving forward.
Improbable as it might’ve seemed a few weeks ago, they’ll now likely face competition in that regard. After all, this is a hitter who posted a combined .293/.402/.574 batting line with 139 home runs, 116 doubles, five triples, a 15.1 percent walk rate and a 20.4 percent strikeout rate in his final four seasons of NPB action. That includes a huge 2016 season, when Tsutsugo launched a career-high 44 home runs and slashed .322/.430/.680.
Given that Tsutsugo won’t turn 30 until November and is now starting to look a bit closer to that NPB form against Major League competition, it would only stand to reason that other teams would have interest. The expected advent of a universal DH can’t hurt his chances, if it indeed comes to fruition.
It’s possible Tsutsugo will simply prefer to return to Japan, where he’d undoubtedly garner interest from other NPB clubs. However, if he’s intent on carving out a career in the Majors, his late run with the Bucs should create opportunities to do just that — whether it’s back in Pittsburgh or with a fourth organization in three years.